To be (told) or not to be (told)

Image: Pan and Syrinx by Rubens

Detail from Pan and Syrinx by Rubens 

So you’ve paid your £16.50 and spent an hour ambling around the hallowed halls of Burlington House, soaking up the artistry on offer at the Royal Academy’s Rubens show.  What did you think of it?  If you enjoyed it you are certainly not keeping evaluative company with the Guardian’s critic, Jonathan Jones.  He describes the exhibition as “sloppy and simplistic” in his excoriating review Rubens and His Legacy: crass analogies, bad ideas – and barely any Rubens.  To be fair, Jones isn’t bemoaning the artworks themselves, rather their juxtaposition and, particularly, the curatorial text which accompanies the hanging.  As an example, Jones mentions that one room contains a Rubens and a Constable where the rubric points out that both paintings contain images of rainbows. (It seems as though we need a documentary with kindly Matthew Collings ambling into shot and saying sotto voce, “Look!  Rubens and Constable have painted a rainbow.  I wonder whether it’s the same rainbow.  Hmm… What does it mean?…”).

The issue of curatorial / editorial text accompanying artworks interests me because it is very germane to my philosophical work on the aesthetics of art (and music in particular).  At a recent doctoral training day at The Courtauld Institute, I was lucky enough to hear a talk by Professor David Solkin.  David described his first time curating a show of works by the English landscape painter Richard Wilson at The Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain) in 1982.  This show was hung just with titles for the works but with no commentary at all on the gallery walls.  Clearly, this approach is diametrically opposite to the guided tour that the current curators at the RA have decided the punters want.  Given that most attendees at such a show are not likely to be cultural ingénues or tyros, which approach is best?  Do the show-goers want a Deleuzian, rhizomatic, line of flight experience of making their own cultural links and associations in an unannotated gallery space, or are the helpful hints of curatorial guidance just what are required to prompt dinner party conversation at Islington and Wandsworth Common soirees later in the day?

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2 Responses to To be (told) or not to be (told)

  1. I think the focus should be on the encounter with the artwork but, as we can’t all be experts, it’s often a help to have some good notes to refer to as well. A lot depends on the ‘expert’ who’s providing them. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam took it a stage further last year, putting up bright yellow posters beside the works suggesting how they illustrated life lessons – the ‘Art as Therapy’ show curated by Alain de Bottom and John Armstrong. Could have been awful but was different and thought-provoking.
    Here’s something I’ve now stumbled across – singer David Byrne (I presume) giving his own context for works in the Rijksmuseum.
    And, to bring this discussion of commerce into the 21st century, here’s news that you can now use images of artworks in that museum to create your own mugs and tshirts (shock horror) -

    • Tom Hewitt says:

      Thanks for your comments, Martin. Your’re right, sometimes some ‘expert’ commentary on an exhibition is exactly what’s required. But over the years I’ve found that the quality / relevance varies from informative to banal. I’d have thought that bright yellow posters grated a bit on the visual field in those sombre ‘Farrow & Ball’ tones of the interior of the Rijksmuseum.

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